Amongst all the celebrations that followed Glory Days’ Auckland Cup win, none meant more than this embrace between trainer Bill Thurlow and jockey Sam Collett.

From Waverley to the Waikato, all the way to Auckland and beyond, the feel-good story of Auckland Cup week was Glory Days’ win in the signature race of the Ellerslie carnival.

As New Zealand’s only Group One race at 3200 metres, the Barfoot & Thompson-sponsored Auckland Cup holds a special place on the annual calendar. That uniqueness was enhanced last Saturday when Bill Thurlow and Sam Collett combined with a plain little mare for their career-first Group One wins.

The build-up to the race had been dominated by Glory Days and those involved with her, from the time three weeks earlier when she had made a last-to-first Ellerslie debut in the Avondale Cup.

Thurlow, a farmer-come-horseman with a gnarly exterior balanced by a soft interior, and Sam Collett, born to racing as the daughter of two headline jockeys, were obvious media fodder as their big day approached.

Through it all neither flinched. Thurlow stuck to his self-taught guns in the decision to go three weeks between races, while Collett, last season’s premiership winner but still looking for that first big one, maintained her chirpy persona as she openly discussed the tactics basically remaining the same on her back-running Cup mount.

It cost her a $300 fine, but Sam Collett couldn’t resist celebrating before the Auckland Cup winning post on Glory Days.

By race time the only query was the heavy track. Glory Days had ticked all the boxes for the man who knew her best, and even though she had wet-track form, at 3200 metres it might be all too much.

No chance. As expected Glory Days dropped out to the rear as first Verry Flash, then Dee And Gee carted the field along at a decent clip. Meantime Collett was happy to have plenty of horse under her, even if she was in last place heading out of the back straight.

Back in the grandstand, Thurlow was calm (or so he later claimed), tuned into the same knowledge as Collett that Glory Days was “travelling”. Not until the 800-metre mark did Collett ask for something, or as she was to recall, “I had no option, she just towed me into the race”.

The one thing Collett said she wasn’t going to repeat was getting to the front too soon, as she felt she had in the Avondale Cup, but if there was a difference this time, it was only marginal. With a full head of steam, Glory Days had skirted the field and was still charging the bridle as heads turned for home.

From this writer’s memory bank, three Auckland Cup wins spring to mind that could compare with the 2019 demolition job – Rose Mellay and Bob Skelton in 1974, Perhaps and Brent Thompson two years later, and Blue Denim with Bob Vance up in 1980. All three were mares and all three had their rivals covered a long way from home.

“We had done a lot of planning, we knew our horse, it was just that we don’t run there all the time.”

The only difference this time was that Glory Days is nowhere near as impressively built as her distant predecessors, but the effect was no different. A lot of that comes down to the well-recognised recipe of slighter physique being more than balanced by a certain cussed streak. Glory Days fits that mould perfectly.

“When we got her as a two-year-old she had been broken in, but it was a case of going back to basics,” Thurlow recalls. “She was very tough, quite hard work to start with, three days out of six she would drop someone.

“We decided the best way was to just take her steadily, not rush her, then we had no other option when she got cast in her box and damaged her pelvis.”

Thurlow might have been a stranger to most northern racegoers until Glory Days emerged, but even before taking out his owner-trainer’s licence in the late 1980s he wasn’t short of exposure to racing’s high end.

One of his closest friends is Warwick Lupton, the son of legendary Waverley horseman Snow Lupton. On one of Melbourne Cup winner Kiwi’s later Victorian spring campaigns, Thurlow and the younger Lupton ‘rode shotgun’ when the mighty stayer was subjected to greater scrutiny than when he appeared out of nowhere to win the 1983 Cup.

“Snow was getting a bit worried about all the attention Kiwi was attracting, so Warwick and I had the job of sleeping in camp stretchers close to the horse. There were no shotguns though – the only thing resembling a weapon was a pitchfork!”

Stockmanship and its application to winning big races has long been part of the New Zealand fabric and Thurlow accepts that his name might now be mentioned in similar vein to Snow Lupton and many others of similar ilk. He’s also happy to refer to the planning that went into Glory Days’ Auckland Cup bid.

“We were confident going into last weekend; like it wasn’t as if we had just turned up. We had done a lot of planning, we knew our horse, it was just that we don’t run there (at Ellerslie) all the time.”

Not that Thurlow has lost his innate humility, which includes giving due credit to others who were part of the plan – wife Fiona, daughters Emma and Jamie, and Glory Days’ regular work rider Jonty Reid.

Another is Wanganui jockey Lisa Allpress, who Thurlow replaced for the northern campaign due to his desire to employ a jockey with local knowledge. Sam Collett certainly filled that bill with a perfect two-from-two result, but Thurlow will adopt the same policy for Glory Days’ upcoming Sydney campaign.

Collett accepts that – bar holding the faint hope that at 51 kilograms in the Sydney Cup, Thurlow may have trouble finding a suitable local jockey.

“You never know, but I’m just happy to have won the Auckland Cup, got my Group One, and know I’ve done the business,” Collett said earlier this week.

Breaking her duck in that very race made it special, given that her parents quinellaed the 1991 Cup when their daughter was just a year old. Special too that her mother Trudy Thornton – more than 1,000 wins and riding as well as ever at age 55 – also rode in Saturday’s Cup and was one of the first to congratulate the winning jockey as the field pulled up.

“Yeah, I always enjoy riding against Mum out there too,” Collett said. “Getting a kiss from her was special – I don’t think she gave Dad one when he won the Auckland Cup!”